Thomas Dollahite and his wife, Amanda Duran, have been finishing cattle on 60 acres of irrigated perennial pastures at Peculiar Farms in Los Lunas, New Mexico since 2011. During that time they have developed their finishing enterprise so they can finish approximately 100-120 animals per year. They have grown the direct marketing of their products so that currently they are selling approximately 25% of their animals in a retail market and 75% through the wholesale market of La Montanita Coop.
In addition to their numerous farm products—beef, turkey, geese, ducks, pigs, eggs and vegetables, they also began a farmstand and then a restaurant, Europa Coffee and Tea Bakery, to sell more of their products direct to the consumer. In just a year, the demand for product has grown so that they now also offer a Farm to Table experience for farm dinners and catered weddings on the farm as well as a European Farm Stay through Air BnB.
Dollahite is part of the Sweet Grass Co-op which is a cooperative of family-owned ranches located throughout Colorado and New Mexico. Ranchers in this cooperative raise their animals humanely and on pastured forage and in a way that improves land health. Originally Dollahite was involved in the whole cattle cycle, but he quickly learned that the niche need he could fill was to consistently finish animals on his irrigated pastures because of his reliable water and the year round warm weather.
“It’s worked really well for me to be a part of the Sweetgrass Coop and purchasing the calves through the cooperative. I get a consistent calf crop throughout the year and I know the genetics are good—these animals will produce on grass finishing. I also have different ranches to work with and I know how the animal has been treated which is important to me. To work with a group of producers who have the same ethics means I can offer the kind of product I want. It’s hard to source organic calves for finishing and I have that option through the co-op.”
Dollahite has steers and heifers coming in around 18-20 months old. They weigh 900 pound when they arrive and he finishes them to 1,200-1,300 pounds. This can take six to nine months. He purchases these animals for $1,100 and sells them retail at $2,400 (processing is covered by the customer or the wholesaler). His biggest expense is the utilities for the well which can run as much as $1,000/month in a high-production season. With equipment and seed costs, his gross profit on the cattle operation for direct marketed animals is $1700/acre.
Dollahite has the cattle pastures divided into three-acre paddocks. Depending on season and size of cattle, the cattle may be in a paddock for three days to two weeks. He aims for a recovery period of 28-42 days. Since there is permanent fencing and water drinkers on all of his paddocks, moving the animals is as simple as opening and gate and letting them through. Labor needs are minimal so the cattle operation is a one-man show. Adding 2,000 meat chickens that move with the cattle only increases the gross profit per acre further.
Drip Irrigation Allows Consistency
The 200-foot, 10-inch well, installed along with drip irrigation under permanent pasture in 2014, was a major investment for Dollahite. He had begun with a perennial cover in 2011 but found the flood irrigating challenging with no guarantee of when or how long they would get water. Using an NRCS EQIP Grant, his well produces 500 gallons/minute and the drip irrigation is placed on three-foot centers, one foot underground. This way he can drill his annual covers into the perennial cover of clovers and grasses that he planted from Peaceful Valley. He drills summer and winter annual mixes that he purchases from Greencover Seed. These mixes include sunflowers, okra, mustard, and buckwheat for summer forage. For winter forage, his mix includes a kale-turnip cross and grains like winter wheat.
While there is additional costs with the well, Dollahite believes he wouldn’t be able to scale his operation the way he has and raise the quality of beef consistently without it. Having access to reliable water year round means he has the opportunity to buy in more animals and raise them in a manner that is good for the land and good for the animals. He doesn’t have to buy in hay like his grandfather did so he is saving on his feed costs.
Prior to 2001, these pastures were in Kentucky fescue with an average paddock size of 20 acres. Dollahite’s grandfather would drill winter wheat to provide additional forage for the winter. When Dollahite added the drip irrigation it took a while for the fields to establish. He installed the drip in stages and found that the one that has had three years to establish is really coming into production.
“It takes about three years for a new field to get established,” says Dollahite. “Because the drips are on 3-foot centers, the seeds germinate first near the emitters. Over time, as those plants get stronger root systems and we have more organic matter on the soil, other seeds further away from the emitters begin to germinate and the field has filled in. For that reason, we haven’t been pushing with adding a lot more animals. We want the root systems to get established.” The drip irrigation has also resulted in a 40% reduction in water usage.
With the fields coming into full production, Dollahite has seen at least a 10% increase, so he’s decided he’s going to take about 7 acres out of cattle production and put it into vegetable production because the demand for his produce through his restaurant is outstripping current supply.
Peculiar Farms has always been no-till. Dollahite’s grandfather looked at nature and saw that the areas with grass weren’t being tilled and were a perennial system. He decided it would be best to imitate Nature. Dollahite has continued with that process and found that it reduces his need for amendments. The soil is only amended by cattle and chicken manure that is spread by the animals themselves. Additionally, in some fields, Dollahite adds some trace minerals as a foliar spray once a season.
Farm to Table
Dollahite has been selling direct to the consumer through a “Whole Cow” program for since starting his farm in 2011 through an internet-based marketing system. A year ago, Peculiar Farms started their farm to table restaurant, Europa Coffee and Tea Bakery. From its humble beginning of coffee, tea, and pastries and farm produce and meat sales, the restaurant has grown rapidly as people want other choices. The interest in full service meals and catered weddings along with a host of other value-added food products means that more profit can be made from all the farm produces and less product that needs to diverted into wholesale channels. As the customer base grows so does word of mouth about the farm products for sale and the opportunities for private sales.
While trained labor forces in rural areas is a critical concern for many restaurant managers, Dollahite has not had that issue. “We manage thirteen staff who do the cooking, serving, and a host of other duties,” says Dollahite. “We keep them busy year round with a variety of duties and they are an amazing staff. We had to grow to get new products fast enough to keep people satisfied. They wanted more seating and different types of food, varied items, and tours. It definitely has been a challenge to scale up quickly enough for the interest.”
Clearly what Dollahite has developed resonates with his customers—specifically the farm to table focus and his passion for growing quality food through sustainable agriculture. “You have to have to have a passion for what you do,” he says. “You need to look at what you have, what type of situation you are in, and what is your land capable of doing. If you aren’t passionate about your work, it’s hard to do it well. I talk with farmers who are doing things that aren’t really right for their location. If you are trying to do it for a buck it won’t really work. It has to feed you.”
But market interest is not the main driver for Dollahite’s interest in sustainable agriculture. “I think I should be a good steward of the land,” he says. “From a biblical perspective, I believe we have a responsibility. I’m also giving to my children something that they won’t have to clean up, giving them something of quality and more productive than when it was given to me. I guess it started with my grandfather’s ethics. But, I also did archeology in Israel, and I learned there about how to do things with limited water and it caused me to think outside of the box.”
Thanks to the Thornburg Foundation for their support of the development of this case study.
What are the benefits of cover crops?
- Increases organic matter and minerals
- Increases earthworms and beneficial microorganisms
- Stabilizes soil to prevent erosion
- Brings deep-rooted minerals to the surface
- Improves water, root and air penetration of soil
- Increases the soil’s moisture-holding capacity
- Breaks up hard pan
- Provides beneficial insects habitat
- Reduces bare ground where weeds can germinate
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